Something in the Dirt (USA, 2022)
Having reviewed Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth yesterday, I decided to watch Something in the Dirt as a follow-up, just so I could make wry comments about the titles forming a thematic double-bill. Having watched them both now, they have a lot more in common than I’d anticipated. More on that later, however.
Between the podcast and blog, we’ve discussed Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson a few times on this site, specifically Spring and The Endless. Their imaginative, DIY approach and genre-bending films appeal to me greatly. With the exception of Synchronic, I’ve loved all their work so far, and even that was only a mild disappointment.
I’d been waiting while now for Something in the Dirt to pop up on one of the streaming services I subscribe to, but it has yet do so. Impatience got the better of me and I ended up buying a copy, which I rarely do with films nowadays. So let’s see if this was money well spent.
Something in the Dirt is currently available to rent or buy on most streaming services.
“What’s crazier? Believing every single coincidence you ever see or just ignoring them all?”
We meet Levi, a bartender working in Los Angeles, as he wakes up on the floor of a rundown, unfurnished apartment. He heads outside and meets one of his new neighbours, a maths teacher named John, who offers to lend him some furniture. As John helps move this furniture in, Levi sees a large quartz crystal float up from the floor and refract dazzling light around the room. When John withnesses this as well, the pair decide to make a documentary about the phenomenon.
As the weirdness in Levi’s apartment escalates, John starts seeing signs and symbols relating to it all around the city. As John begins to piece together a web of impossible coincidences, Levi grows steadily more concerned about how these reversals of gravity are affecting the apartment block.
Even as we start to suspect that John is faking at least some of his evidence, both men are undeniably faced with an accelerating series of impossible events. Their desperate need to come up with more and more outlandish theories drives them deeper into obsession.
Will Levi and John be able to untangle this sprawling web of ideas and phenomena? How does all this relate to John’s membership of an Apocalyptic Christian sect? And how much of what we’re seeing can we even trust?
Like yesterday’s In the Earth, Something in the Dirt is a product of the early days of the pandemic. This is a film with a tiny budget, largely shot in Justin Benson’s apartment during lockdown. While the subject matter is quite different, there are also parallels in how the two films tackle making sense of the ineffable. There are even similarities in the role of sound and light in these attempts.
Much like Wheatley, Moorhead and Benson have been working on much larger productions recently, so this feels like a return to their earlier indie days. Not only did the duo produce, write and direct, but they star as well, just as they did in The Endless. Their performances are perfect, especially Aaron Moorhead’s turn as the mild-mannered John, who becomes steadily more sinister as the film progresses.
Perhaps appropriately for a film all about making connections, I kept finding myself thinking about all the different media Something in the Dirt reminded me of. Seeing Levi and John fall apart as they tried to make sense of something impossible in a small apartment building made me think of Kathe Koja’s The Cipher. The pair’s obsessive need to find meaning and patterns in everything felt like an unlikely mash-up of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, and their failure to do so reminded me of Lem’s Solaris. Their exploration of the occult history of their city also took me back to Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness. And the unreliable documentarian angle almost mirrors Butterfly Kisses.
The tight constraints under which Something in the Dirt was made means the script is everything here. Happily, it more than delivers. This is a clever, mind-bending, and surprisingly funny piece of cinema. We’re used to seeing weird ideas handled deftly and imaginatively by Moorhead and Benson, but this is exceptional even by their standards.
While Something in the Dirt is only tangentially a horror film, the growing unease we feel as we struggle to make sense of these miracles and lies is very real. We share Levi and John’s anxiety as they try to find patterns and impose ever stranger meanings on them, but with an additional layer of intrigue as we wonder how much we can trust what we are witnessing.
I can see people who want neat narratives and resolutions becoming frustrated, but those who are happy to be challenged will find plenty to enjoy here. Something in the Dirt is a maddening piece of cinema in all the best ways.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Dark August (USA, 1976)
- Huesera: The Bone Woman (Mexico/Peru, 2022)
- The Banishing (UK, 2020)
- Brooklyn 45 (USA, 2023)
- Bloody Muscle Bodybuilder in Hell (Japan, 1995)
- Pyewacket (Canada, 2017)
- Grave Robbers (Mexico, 1989)
- You Might Be The Killer (USA, 2018)
- No One Will Save You (USA, 2023)
- The Sect (Italy, 1991)
- Last Night in Soho (UK, 2021)
- Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil (Spain, 2017)
- 47 Metres Down (UK/USA, 2017)
- The Oskars Fantasy (Philippines, 2022)
- In the Earth (UK, 2021)
- Something in the Dirt (USA, 2022)
- Blood Flower (Malaysia, 2023)
- Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (Canada, 1987)
- Older Gods (UK, 2023)
- Come to Daddy (New Zealand, 2020)
- Shrew’s Nest (Spain, 2014)
- Totally Killer (USA, 2023)
- The Premonition (USA, 1976)
- Murder Me, Monster (Argentina, 2018)
- The Gruesome Twosome (USA, 1967)
- Talk to Me (Australia, 2023)
- Gaia (South Africa, 2021)
- Demon (Poland, 2015)
- Juju Stories (Nigeria, 2022)
- El Conde (Chile, 2023)
- The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (Hong Kong/UK, 1974)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Night House
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!